Groove is in the heart in Gorno Draglishte

Published: September 27th 2018
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Today we were travelling north from Bansko to Gorno Draglishte.

Having spent the morning trekking in the mist-covered Pirin Mountains, we returned to our hotel in Bansko, checked out in the mid-afternoon and travelled a short distance by minibus to our homestay in the tiny village of Gorno Draglishte. When we pulled up outside our guesthouse, the dining room and courtyard area was full of people. This was our host family’s home, and people had gathered for a christening. We grabbed our room key, found our room (after navigating a maze of stairs, hallways and doors), dropped our packs and headed out for a brief orientation walk through the village.

The place was tiny, and we were the only tourists, so everyone knew who we were. The village only had a couple of streets, and each house had a burgeoning vegetable garden. There was no sight of a lawn or landscaped garden, as every last inch of land was being used for a meaningful (as opposed to aesthetic) purpose. The village was virtually 100% self-sustaining in terms of its food supply, and we helped ourselves to raspberries and cherries growing wildly in the street.

Gorno Draglishte is shadowed by the Pirin Mountains in the south and the Rila Mountains in the north, and it is surrounded by agricultural fields that stretch to the horizon. This was clearly a farming village. Women walked the streets with garden tools flung over their shoulders, and men travelled in donkey-drawn carts.

We love experiencing local cultures and places when we travel, and you couldn’t get any more local than this. It wasn’t long before we had walked the length of the main street, so we dropped into the local bar and relaxed into the early evening.

We picked up a bottle of dark red wine (Villa Melnik Cuvee 2013) our way back to the homestay, where our host family was preparing a home cooked dinner for us. I was amazed that they could cook for our group and celebrate a christening at the same time. We settled in the family dining room, where our hosts poured rakia (Bulgarian brandy) into our glasses and then sang a few traditional Bulgarian songs unaccompanied. Two massive loaves of fresh bread were brought to the table and torn apart by one of our hosts, while large serving plates and bowls of delicious food were placed on the table in front of us – soup, potato gratin, strained white cheese, salad, white bean stew and creamy chicken and vegetable stew. The food was very warming and comforting, and our plates were never empty, as our incredibly friendly hosts were forever topping up our plates – even when we tried to resist…

The rakia and red wine flowed freely, and before we knew it we were wearing traditional Bulgarian clothing and dancing in the street. A very oily type of baklava was served for dessert, and our hosts continued singing acapella as we sat and enjoyed their company.

We retired upstairs to a small sitting room beside our bedroom, where the red wine continued to flow into the night. This had been another incredible travel day, where we had experienced a very local side of rural Bulgaria. After a day of trekking, exploring and feasting, we were exhausted, and it wasn’t long before we were fast asleep.

Today was a travel day from Bansko to Gorno Dragliste, by minibus.

After spending the morning hiking in the Pirin Mountains, it was nice to have a hot shower at our hotel in Bansko before our 30 minute drive to a tiny village. We arrived in the beautiful village of Gorno Dragliste in the late afternoon. We were staying in a small guesthouse built around the host’s own home, and we quickly realised that there was an extended family gathering at the house for a Christening.

We were shown to our cute rooms by the mother of the house who we later found out had spent most of the day cooking a huge feast for both the Christening and our dinner. The house had a quirky rambling layout with multiple entrances, stairs and walkways. Andrew and I were on the second floor with Cheryl and Joanne, and they had to walk through our room to get to theirs. It wasn’t an issue at all, but we had to keep decent at all times. 😉

We tried not to intrude on the family gathering, but the atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and we immediately felt at ease in the house. Nonetheless, we left them to it and went for a walk around the village. Gorno Dragliste is guarded by the Pirin Mountains to the north (where we’d just been) and the Rila Mountains (where we were heading) to the distant south. Striking jagged peaks pierced the sky in every direction.

The village was quite small, and I would guess it has a population of about five hundred. The main street had an avenue of fruit trees planted on the footpaths, and the trees were laden with nearly fully ripe cherries – which we happily helped ourselves to. Every garden we passed was full of neat rows of vegetables and fruit trees, and grapes growing on arbours. There was no space wasted on lawns, and the only non-productive plants I saw were roses and geraniums. The houses were large and very neatly presented, with flower boxes in the windows and wooden benches outside each gate.

The town square was quiet, with the only sign of life being the celebrations in one of the restaurants of the multiple Christenings in the village that Sunday. We kept walking along the side streets until we came to the small farms at the edge of the village. The farms were full of lush corn, green beans and potatoes. Only a couple of people were working their farms, but I assume this would be a different picture during the week. The wooden fences of the farm plots were covered in drying rugs that had been washed in a big wooden tub installed in the village creek.

After the walk, a few of us decided to settle down in one of the three village bars for a pre-dinner drink. We chose the least crowded one with comfy looking couches, and Andrew had a beer while I had sour cherry juice with vodka. It was a lovely relaxed afternoon chatting with Narelle, Cheryl and Mattia about life and travel. The bar soon started filling up with local kids… we’d clearly picked the young people’s hangout bar! One of the other bars was filled with old men, and the biggest bar was housing the family christening celebrations.

We walked back to our homestay, stopping at a small shop to buy a bottle of local Melnik wine for dinner. Wine is a big part of the culture in this part of Bulgaria, dating back to the Thracians who had many rituals and traditions linked to the grape. The vineyards in the area are apparently some of the oldest in the world.

By now people were walking the streets and sitting outside their houses, watching the passing tourists and chatting to neighbours. The whole village seemed to know we were staying the night. There were no other tourists around, so I supposed they’d be very aware of the groups that come through for the homestay every few weeks in summer.

When we got back to our homestay, I meandered through the rambling house getting my bearings. I chanced upon two old ladies in traditional clothing chatting in the dining room. Even though they only spoke a few words of English, they were experts at making themselves understood through sign language. Lena and Jana were very curious about where I was from and how I met my ‘not-brown’ husband! Our mixed race relationship draws a lot of attention in small / conservative places. They’d clearly been discussing our group, and had cheeky smiles when they asked me about others in the group. They were joined by Dana, a third grandmother who was also going to spend the evening with us. I was intent on getting their names right, but they were happy for us to call them all Baba (Grandmother).

They were very warm, welcoming and fun loving octogenarians. They thought nothing of pinching my cheeks and giving me hugs like I was a long lost grandchild. When everyone gradually drifted downstairs, they started the evening by inviting us to dance a horo (traditional folkdance) to traditional Bulgarian music. It was similar to the Greek and Balkan folkdances, where dancers hold hands and dance in a counter clockwise circle. Apparently there are hundreds of horo with various steps, but ours was of the basic ‘three steps forward / one step back’ variety.

When we sat down for dinner, we were served generous pours of homemade rakia (fruit brandy). I could immediately tell it was going to be an entertaining night when the Babas toasted us and effortlessly threw back big shots of rakia too. A massive pot of steaming hot vegetable and noodle soup was put down, accompanied by delicious freshly baked crusty bread (baked by Jana, who we later learnt had won an award for her bread making). We hadn’t even finished our soup when multiple large serving bowls were brought to the table – a butterbean stew, a creamy chicken and vegetable stew, tomato and lettuce salad, strained white cheese, and a baked potato gratin in filo pastry.

As soon as we showed signs of finishing what was on our plate, Lena would pile more food onto it. We learnt quickly not to make eye contact with her when she tried to offer more food. It was a lovely and delicious meal, but I was so totally stuffed by the third serving. And all the while the red wine flowed, and our rakia glasses were not allowed to be empty.

As we sat digesting our meals, the Babas paraded Mattia out from the next room. They had dressed him in a traditional Bulgarian outfit, and he looked (hilariously) like a local boy. This was an invitation for them to dress us all up. Lena dressed me in a white cotton underdress with red embroidery on the sleeves and neck line, then a heavy red and black wool sleeveless dress with a pleated skirt was slipped over it. This was finished with a heavily embroidered red apron and a cream floral patterned scarf. I felt like a proper local girl! Andrew got a white shirt with an embroidered collar, a very fetching green waistcoat, red cumber-band and a big furry black hat. I loved the look! 😄

After everyone was dressed, we were asked to join them in more horo dancing on the road outside their home. It was hysterical, and we had so much fun! However, I did feel a bit sorry for the neighbours who had to watch us butchering their traditional folk dances.

The next part of the evening involved the Babas singing folk songs for us. Their acapella singing and harmonies were quite beautiful. We were asked to reciprocate with songs from our respective countries, and we chose to represent Australia with ‘Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree’. In hindsight, we probably should have picked something a bit catchier.

Dessert was a sort of baklava, but oiler and more caramelised. However, we were so full that I couldn’t get through even half of mine. We retired to an upstairs sitting room with Narelle, Cheryl, Joanne and Mattia to finish our bottles of wine. We reflected on the welcoming village and our fabulous homestay which had given us such a good exposure to the local culture.

As expected, the pace of life was slow…but in the best possible way. An agricultural-based life would be hard work, but it seemed to be very much ingrained into their lives. I absolutely loved the palpable vibe in the village of what I would call ‘relaxed happiness’, and I can only hope that I’ll be as full of life and happiness when I’m as old as the Babas! 😊

We were in bed by 11:30pm and slept like babies after a big day of hiking, dancing, drinking and eating. It had been a very remarkable and unforgettable travel day.

Next we travel north to Sofia, via the famous Rila Monastery.


27th September 2018

Home stay
I'm unusually unsure about staying in local homes, but this one looks good and not too much. Where can I get more details of the trip from?
27th September 2018

Re: Home stay
Some homestays are much better than others, but generally speaking, homestays offer a unique perspective on a culture that we wouldn't otherwise get. Are you considering travelling to Bulgaria? I'll message you the trip details :)
27th September 2018

I’m hearing lots of good things about this country. With many countries now too crowded with tourists, it seems nice to go somewhere not much known
27th September 2018

Re: Bulgaria
Apart from the main tourist sights in bigger cities, Bulgaria was blissfully crowd free! It certainly has a lot to offer, and the food is fabulous :)
1st October 2018

Home cooked meals
Home stays are great and give you all those wonderful family foods. Another great experience. I love the traditional clothing. A little wine and dancing for everyone !!
2nd October 2018

Re: Home cooked meals
The three homestays on this trip had some of the best food we tasted on the whole trip! Being taught the folk dance and dressing up in traditional clothing was so much fun... especially because the Babas were so happy and proud to share their culture with us :)
2nd October 2018
potato gratin

Bulgaria might have the best food in the world and quite possibly the best coffee
We were surprised over the quality of the food in Bulgaria. Everywhere we went the food was great. Even in small towns and in restaurants where they perhaps don't get more than 10 customers per day. But what surprised us even more was the good coffee you could get it everywhere and the quality was always well above expectations. Damn, even the coffee from the vending machines was good quality. /Ake
3rd October 2018
potato gratin

Re: Bulgaria might have the best food in the world and quite possibly the best coffee
Ake that's a big call! :) We loved the food too... the prefect blend of hearty Balkan comfort food and fresh Mediterranean flavours. And their hospitality and generosity made the dining experiences even better :)
12th October 2018

Traditional clothing photo?
What a great day you had! So, where's the photo of you and Andrew in your traditional Bulgarian clothing??
13th October 2018

Re: Traditional clothing photo?
We had an awesome day! There are a couple of photos of us that were uploaded to facebook... but I've been a bit slack with posting the rest of them. Will let you know when I do :)

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